Out of the box empathy in marketing

At some point last fall, some smart and brave person at Hyundai made the brilliant decision to look ahead into the future a few months and realize that consumers would place a new car nearly last on their list of life’s necessities come January. By being the first automaker to promise a money-back guarantee should the buyer lose their job, Hyundai accomplished several brilliant marketing moves.

1. They established empathy with their customers.

2. They beat their competition who thought “employee pricing” — letting consumers buy at the same price as insiders — represented empathy. The competition has followed suit and looks like followers.

3. They tapped into the zeitgeist without resorting to the unimaginative marketing message most brands follow these days which is lower total cost of ownership — the aftersale expense which few consumers want to depress themselves with in the elation of acquiring something new. Do you want to talk about depreciation, mean-time-between-failure, and service costs? Meet my accountant.

Marketers have diminished options in a down economy if they cling to their old campaign playbooks. Those playbooks are what I call megaphone tactics. Yell a lot in the right places with the right people by your side and good things will happen.  This is good for selling cigarettes, booze, and hairspray circa the Mad Men Era of the 1960s.

First to go overboard — sports sponsorships. Read Bill Simmons’ great obituary on the NBA “The No Benjamins Association” on ESPN and look at the NASCAR cars rolling around the ovals with white hoods where the sponsor’s logo used to go.

“Here’s a little game to play during your next NBA outing: Look around for how many suites are dark. (You’ll notice them specifically in the corners or behind the baskets.) A dark suite means either that nobody bought it or that somebody did buy it for the season, then made the decision, “Screw it, let’s save the $1,200 [or whatever the number is] on food and drink and not give tonight’s suite tickets to anyone.”

Sports marketing has been whacked. Corporate home rentals for the Masters in Augusta is off 20% this year and woe to the recipient of government bailout money who buys a hospitality box in a baseball stadium this spring.

Second to go overboard: feel-good branding. Those “eagles-on-proud-wings-standing-on-a-rock-spire-in-Utah” ads are done.  If it doesn’t have a solid call to action (please buy our crap now, please), then it’s not running. Just for grins, next time you’re on the mid-town tunnel approach to Manhattan or on any prime billboard region, count up how many are paid and how many are public service announcements.

Third to die: print ads. Sorry, read the remaining headlines while you can, this is the season when dead-tree publishing gets slammed. Business rags are seeing ad counts down 33% year on year. I won’t echo-chamber the terrible news of newspaper bankruptcies in Seattle, Denver, etc. …. The print puppy died and daddy isn’t bringing home a new one.

So, I could wring my hands and be all dour, but no. Instead I want to point out that for those marketers who still have money to put in market, they seem to cling to last year’s playbook, just tuning the message around the advertising equivalent of a slasher flick to say everything must go, go, go at prices too insane to believe. I see it in the airline spam: Lufthansa offering off the wall fares to Paris —  $200 roundtrips to Europe.

What is happening at places like Hyundai is a realization that the rules have changed. Consumers are sitting on their wallets and will continue to. The question marketing needs to consider is not how to align to a corporate strategy built around volumes and market share — cascading strategy based on sales yields little more than direct marketing and demand generation tactics which do nothing to distinguish the company from its competition.

Standing apart from the competition is the heart of the whole branding thing. Differentiating on price is a fool’s game and leads to the whole slasher flick thing. Tossing the brand overboard in a down market strikes me as the equivalent of eating next season’s seed corn.

My modest proposal? If your marketing budget has tanked, and is down 50 percent from last year, the last thing you want to do is spread yourself thin trying to cover last year’s tactics.  This is the time to take a flyer, to do something innovative, to take a risk and consider the high risk tactic that was dreamed about in good times. This is not the time to fall back on classic Four-P marketing. Of those four p’s — Product, Price, Place, Promotion — I recommend.

Product: not the time to roll out a premium luxe model. Nor is it time to start reducing features around the product.  Example — this is not the time to reduce warranty terms, replace stainless steel screws with plastic screws, or cut any corners. The customers are more vigilant than ever. I saw an amazing presentation by the marketing reporter at Businessweek at Google last week and he showed how peanut butter makers are screwing us out of an ounce not by making the jar smaller. Oh no. They use a concave dent on the bottom of the jar (called a “punt” for you oenophiles) to reduce the volume. This is dickheaded and will come back to bite people.

Price: See my screed on taking the marketing message down to the gutter. Anyone can cut a price.  Smart brands like Hyundai go a step further and say “we feel your pain and fear and will do something about it.”

Place: I would not recommend buying the naming rights to a baseball stadium. I would slam the brakes on all traditional media and go 101% online.  Call me digital, but there it is. The traditional media has lost its mass audience effect big time. Media has exploded and fragmented into a million niches. The only way to accurately chase the audience is with a ninja digital team.  I am serious about this. This  Deprecession is the catalyst that is killing the generational gulf between digital immigrants and digital natives. You stand up and wave a traditional campaign, media plan and I guarantee your days are numbered.

Promotion: This is where the opportunity to put on the thinking caps is. No, no viral. No UGC on YouTube. I’m talking killing the notion of the campaign — as Charlene Li said yesterday on a panel, “campaigns are designed to end” — and move to an organic, ongoing, pervasive conversational model with the crowd. This is not social media marketing hand wringing — 99% of the self-annointed gurus couldn’t run a valid social plan if they were paid to do it. This is 180 degree flip from one-way blah-blah message marketing, expensive research and focus groups, and dumb people saying “I know half my advertising works, just not ….”

Promotions need to die and be replaced with full marketing empathy. This is the time to design a product with the customers, the time to listen to their feedback, give them something in a novel way, and break the model being chased by the competition. This is the time to break out with no questions asked service, with golden-rule customer service, with beyond the pale actions that will define the organization and make it beloved, not loathed. This isn’t about freebies, giveaways and concessions. It’s about constant listening and response. ComCast, JetBlue, these are the listeners and doers.

Anyway, enough dour ranting. Bottom line — this recession is the opportunity to kill off the tried and true and invent something new. Even if you decide to only risk a small portion of your seed corn this year, do it, and do it with every expectation of failing, but do it knowing that the customers will notice and maybe even like you for it.

I recommend a re-reading of Doc Searls’ seminal definition of conversational marketing, it’s worth the time.

Think Ahead While Cutting Back: Marketing Priorities in a Recession : MarketingProfs

via Think Ahead While Cutting Back: Marketing Priorities in a Recession : MarketingProfs Articles.

The Dour Marketer just caught a tweet from MarketingProfs’ Ann Handley pointing to this free piece by some smart people at MarketingNPV (disclosure, which has quoted me in a white paper penned by former colleague Rob O’Regan on marketing ROI in the past).

This is really good, n0-nonsense advice on how to cut when the mandate comes down from on high, and what not to cut during our current Depressionary pothole. There’s been a lot of this advice slung around recently, with rainbows-and-unicorns advice about “don’t stop the authentic conversation,” this sounds more like the real deal:

First, get your head out of the emotional sand. You’ve lost the battle over the power of Marketing to drive the business in the near term. Don’t let disappointment cloud your future. Suck it up, look ahead, and don’t take it personally.

Second, take a step back and define the objectives for making smart cuts:

  • Achieve the target reductions the CEO is asking for (most people stop right here).
  • Support the company strategy for competing successfully.
  • Conduct a thorough and unbiased analysis of all options.
  • Preserve your credibility. Live to fight again another day.”

“Sponsored conversations” are a dumb idea …

… even if the august analysts at Forrester have convinced themselves that as long as the bloggers disclose the payment and are permitted to say whatever they feel, that pay-per-post sounds better redubbed as a “sponsored conversation.”

I still think it is one of the dumber marketing manuevers in the social marketing bag of tricks.

Call me a purist but I like my critics to be objective and my reviewers to be uncomped. Product changes hands to be reviewed, not as gifts. Cash is spent on advertising, not on payola.

As long as bloggers don’t hide who’s paying them and have the freedom to write whatever they want, we think sponsored conversation will fit in well with the other forms of marketing through blogs,” writes Forrester analyst Sean Corcoran. The report – written in conjunction with Forrester analysts Jeremiah Owyang and Josh Bernoff – also includes advice for interactive marketers considering using sponsored conversations in their marketing arsenal, much of it centered on the critical issues of authenticity and transparency.

Whether you agree with Forrester or not, we’d love to have you (and your readers) engage in this dialogue with us. Please let me know if you would like a copy of the new Forrester report, “Add Sponsored Conversations To Your Toolbox.”

There are so many more intelligent ways to get a blogger or group of bloggers to talk about your brand without resorting to cash payments. And I don’t buy this re-tweet/give away for charity dodge either.

I will continue to unsub from “posties” and have long given up following analysts and experts who condone these tactics. The world is slipping into the Idiocracy quickly enough without the “experts” undoing all semblance of objectivity and honesty in the higest potential communications channel ever invented.

Links withheld in protest.

update: Owyang is determined to bait me into a pissing match on this one, now by citing Lenovo’s Voice of the Olympic Games program as an example of a “sponsored conversation.”  I am not going to get semantic with him on “sponsored” and “conversation” definitions. Lenovo did not pay any athlete to blog nor once suggested, demanded, hinted or discussed that the athlete mention the word Lenovo. We gave them free laptops and FlipCams with no strings attached. The point that just won’t sink in with him — no matter who huffs and puffs, is payola is wrong, cash-for-blogging sucks, and Forrester is on the wrong side of the whole pay-per-post debate. I revert to Mark Cahill’s pointer to the concept of journalistic ethics. I suggest every blogger with a shred of dignity read it. And yeah, yeah, I know. Bloggers aren’t journalists. I’m suggesting they may want to avail themselves of some journalistic best practices and take the high road. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journalistic_ethics

Curriculum Blogtae – your blog as your resume

No fewer than five former colleagues and friends have lit up blogs since the New Year, starting down a road that is remarkably rewarding if you have an affinity for it, but can also be frightening if it’s a forced march being taken on because someone suggested a blog is a smart career move (it is, done right). Thankfully for me spreadsheets haven’t migrated into the social domain – I’d be tongue tied if I had to communicate in cells and formulae, and I expect some new bloggers are more accustomed to communication through a Powerpoint slide than they are through a paragraph. I guess ex-journalists will have the easiest time in this medium, with quants and more analytical types a little more tongue-tied.

I sense a lot of these efforts are being launched because of the rising need to market their skills in an uncertain job market, to establish new ventures, and to put their expertise on public display. All, I might add as an aside, were launched on WordPress.com (and that is good). I wish the best to all, and regard their first posts with the same nervousness I felt when I started blogging. If I have any advice from those years, it’s this: it is all worthwhile when someone comes up to you and says those ego-stroking words: “I read your blog ….”

A blog is (to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman) a song of yourself, a constant give and take between privacy and exposure, sharing and guarding, safety and risk. It’s not a printing press for cash, but there are those out there who feel compelled to launch blogs as businesses, and to that subculture there is a bleakness of affiliate marketing, PPC, linkbaiting, and SEO gaming techniques ripe for the picking but which never seem to yield much in the way of honor or cash. I understand when people in tough financial straits need to do what needs to be done to make a living. If blogging is your best idea of an at-home business plan, let me refer you to Dan Lyons – The Fake Steve Jobs — and his recent column in Newsweek on the futility of chasing $$$ from a blog.

For those who manage to stick with it, a blog can be an interesting ego exercise – a public diary and soapbox that needs some weekly tending before it withers. The following big issues will emerge.

  1. Your “about page” is your new bio. If you optimize anything, try make sure the about page encapsulates your bio as succinctly and accurately as possible. This is the new resume. This is a freeform space for you to paint the picture of you. Add LinkedIn ties, Facebook, twitter accounts, photos, and a link to your actual resume.
  2. Focused: there are highly focused blogs that mine one specific vein of expertise. This is a tried and true tactic to establish one’s self as a subject matter expert. For some, particularly those with a technical skill, a highly focused blog can work wonders in building reputation. Particularly if the blogger is actually smart. These blogs thrive in their niche by being social with other experts in the same niche. Web analytics is a perfect example.
  3. Unfocused: there are blogs, like this one, that cover the gamut from professional to personal issues. I have wrestled with the idea of launching a separate blog or two, but in the end have decided to stay consolidated and veer from one area of interest to another.

Courage is the toughest issue. I get the most traffic and comments when I go out on the limb and say something provocative. Sometimes I regret going too far and not moderating my opinions. I launched my first blog in 2002 and gave up because it felt too weird writing polemics and highly opinionated pieces in public after a career as an objective journalist. It still feels weird. I won’t ever feel comfortable stating a political or religious opinion in public out of an old habit of trying to remain as neutral as possible. This is a curse, not a virtue. Then again, I know a novice blogger who was just shown the door because of some ill-considered blog posts.

Drafting and knowing when to just hit the publish button is an art. I am a sloppy grammarian, punctuater, and copyeditor. Some people are picky about those errors, I just go back and correct them as I find them. Blogs are not nuclear fission. The world won’t end if you publish a mess.

And one final note: you will look and look for some verification that the blog is worth the time it takes. If you start collecting scalps and measuring your net worth in terms of followers, subscribers, readers or page views, I feel sorry for you. It’s not about the numbers. For the Dour Marketer, a blog is a reward unto itself. Do it for the experience, not the followers, and certainly not the cash.

Advice for Those New to New Media – Specialize | All Things Cahill

Advice for Those New to New Media – Specialize | All Things Cahill.

Good post by Cahill on the need to specialize in social media, indeed all things.

It’s not good enough anymore to be a “new media specialist”, or even a “web video specialist.”  It’s heading to the direction where each of the general video tasks will become their own separate areas of specialization.  Such as editing, or compression, etc.

So now would be the time, especially if you are looking to retrain, or are already working in new media, to think about becoming more specialized.  In the long term I believe you’ll see more job opportunity, and better job security.  You’ll still compete in the general market, and you’ll have that one area of expertise where you’ll be the superstar.

Riddle me this … TweetJacking or Citizen Branding?

I use TweetDeck to follow mentions of ThinkPad and Lenovo on Twitter.  For the past few weeks a new phenomenon has popped up, one that confuses me to no end.

So we have a user @moon, who tweets, fairly frequently, variations on the following message:

On Monday Groundhog Day I’m giving away a Lenovo IdeaPad S10 RT @moon 3 times and be the first to RT a selected Tweet on GHD”

Then he posts variations of that promotion by inserting the name of a well known “A-list” blogger or Twitterer — like @chrisbrogan or @scoble.

1. I don’t know what GHD is. [duh: GHD=Ground Hog Day]

2. I have no clue who Paul Mooney is. He has a website http://www.neuronspark.com but I can’t figure out what the business is. There are tons of affiliate marketing links on the right sidebar.

3. Why would he give away a $400 netbook? Is this an example of a grassroots promotion and by running his own contest he hopes to get more attention to his twitter ID and hence more followers?

4. Why is he inserting the names of @twitter celebrities?

It is very effective — @moon has dominated the Lenovo brand name in Twitter for a month, has induced tons of people to “RT” his giveaway, and in the end, got my attention, for I am writing this blog post, and sent him a direct ping asking “what is compelling you to give away the S10” and observing:  “moon: Why do you retweet your giveaway to every social media person like chrisheuer, jowyang, etc? Seems like spam at this point”

He replied: “I know chrisheuer and jowyang so I was hoping they would reTweet the giveaway.”

And I said:  “moon: just concerned because of Dec. KMART incident with XXXXXX and Izea/Payperpost people. Don’t want lenovo associated with that”

To which he replied he wanted to do the promo with Lenovo.

So here’s the observation. If you manage a brand online, get ready for people to leverage it — both professional and personal — for their own gain.The big question is whether to grease the skids and enable it, stand by and watch it happen, or send in the clowns and get all legal.

The question is this: should I be giving product to bloggers and twitter users to activate this sort of self-managed promotion/contest or am I on shaky legal/ethical ground? I did rip into the “Blog Slut” phenomenon and don’t want to demean the Lenovo brand name by getting into any kind of payola arrangements. That aside, @moon has pounded the word Lenovo and gotten other people to Tweet it far more than the usual organic flow of the conversation would have. So should I shut up and be happy for the free branding?

Brands run into this with affiliate marketing programs all the time. If you give people an incentive to market on your behalf you may not be happy with their techniques they use to do it. This one just has me perplexed.

As one twitter user just said to my ardeht Lenovo promoter: “@moon This is a very clever promotion you’re running. Bet you’ll get lots of new followers and interest in what you do.”

The Dour Marketer’s Reading List

As part of the occasional series of how to survive this evil, ugly economy with digital marketing, let me acknowledge the need of a lot of experienced marketers, to get smart — and fast — on all this Digital Stuff. Because a colleague just asked me for a bibliography to help teach himself digital, I figured a blog post and an invitation to you dear reader to suggest some additions would kill several birds with the same post.

Let’s start by saying I am not a fan of  “business” books. Sure, I’ve read Tipping Point and Execution and Blue Ocean/Red Ocean … I was even  involved in the writing of a business book when I was associated with Gartner’s editorial board in 2004.  (Multisourcing) I tend to order and read a so-called “business book” only when I need to, and then only if I need to get smart fast on a specific function.

There is no omnibus guide to digital marketing. Maybe I should write one, but it would be out of date before it was even outlined: for the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed.*

Later on I will try to compile a blog roll of essential digital marketing blogs, but the genre of digital marketing blogs is a mess, and I’d say I personally only can read three or four on an ongoing basis.

This is a only a bibliography. Here is an “aStore” in Amazon if you want to buy them.


Where to begin? Let’s begin at the center of digital, the very hub of where it all begins, and that is search. If you don’t understand search and how it works, then digital marketing in all of its forms and variants is going to be lost on you.

The best explanation of the history, the process, and the impact of search was written several years ago, but still is valid, and that’s John Battelle’s The Search. Trust me, but if you want to understand digital marketing you must understand search. Everything digital starts with a search.

Battelle gives you the history and theory, Moran and Hunt give you the nuts and bolts of how to run a search campaign from both the paid (SEM) and the organic (SEO) side. Search Engine Marketing, Inc. is out in a revised edition and gives a strong step-by-step cookbook for running a paid search campaign and developing a website that will rank high in any search engine’s organic rankings.


The heart of digital marketing, the reason we care about it, is its accountability through metrics. One strong recommendation here is Avinash Kaushik’s Web Analytics: An Hour a Day. There are also some specific titles around Google Analytics, which isn’t a bad idea for some trying to master that environment specificially. Avinash is where you start.

Landing Pages

Tim Ash has a decent book on landing pages and the art/science of optimization.  Landing pages make the world go round in terms of improving “cse” or customer success events, so take some time and read Tim’s Landing Page Optimization

Display and banner media

I don’t know of a single book in this genre, but I would say that there is lot of good stuff at the Internet Advertising Bureau’s site. Especially on standards and practices.

If you are trying to make a case to stop doing dumb-ass traditional advertising and move it online, then read Joseph Jaffe’s Life After the 30-Second Spot.

Online branding

There a few good books out there on this topic. Allen Adamson quotes me in BrandDigital. Andy Beal quotes me in Radically Transparent, a good book on reputation monitoring and management. Rohit Bhargava’s Personality Not Included is a good read. Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s Groundswell. Scoble and Israel’s Naked Conversations is worth mentioning in the context of corporate blogging … so many books, so little time. Seth Godin is an industry unto himself. Meatball Sundae is a good change-agent manifesto, but the granddaddy of all manifestos is Cluetrain.

I’ll tackle blogs later. This is just a quick lunchtime post for a colleague. I’ll revise this as time goes by — please give me some recommendations in the comments and be sure to only suggest books that you’ve actually read and would force me to read.


This is a weird suggestion, but it did have an impact on me back in 1995 when I was developing and designing my first two sites: Reel-Time and Forbes.com. That is A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander. Richard Duffy, a friend from PC Week and the early early days of Forbes Digital Media recommended that book and it had more of an effect on how I think about functionality and usability than anything that followed.

*: William Gibson

Triage for tough times — The Dour Marketer

Here’s a list of tactics I think should be attended to before new monies are invested in digital marketing. Let’s call these three macro  tactics the Thrifty Trinity, and they are what I would tackle before making excuses that you can’t build the business without an investment. CFOs aren’t making investments these days, indeed, that 2009 budget you’re waiting to kick in next month? Assume it is going to shrink.

1.  SEO: I am not a fan of agency/consultant based SEO and ascribe to the Calacanis heretical view that if you need to perform SEO as an overt tactic then you’re doing something wrong. But SEO is the other side of the paid search coin — proof of the cliche that a penny saved through a higher organic ranking is a penny that can be spent elsewhere in the SEM portfolio of search terms. With paid search over 25% – to as high as 50% — of many digital media plans, SEO is cost effective tactic — strike that, SEO is like breathing, do it right and you thrive —  that requires general greater attention from production and content, good technical implementation, and an overall awareness from PR to blogs that clear, concise writing, credible links, and a manic desire to elevate one’s rank.  Just keep in mind — everything starts with a search. So start your dour marketing there. Just think like a customer, start searching like one, and see where your organization returns. Read Hunt and Moran. Avoid consultants.

2. Social: Get Google Reader, figure out how to subscribe to RSS feeds of searches on your primary brand terms (e.g. “Chevrolet” “Chevy” “Impala” etc.), a couple C-level executive names, and start reading what people say about you. Avail yourself of the torrent of free advice on how to engage an angry customer and make it your mission to make one happy. Repeat over and over. Don’t advertise on Facebook because you think it is au courant. Don’t pay a blogger for coverage. Open your own blog. Make it your blog. Talk about your dinner. What you are reading. Get comfortable with it.  It’s a good career move and when the time comes to get involved with corporate blogging, you’ll know what you’re talking about. Don’t let your external PR agency dictate the terms to you. Don’t pay attention to social media monitoring services. You can’t afford either.

3. Plan: if you have a media budget then sit down, take a hard look at a single dollar. Let’s call this “your next marketing dollar.” Now take a hard look at your media plan, your operation budget, and ask yourself — how can I make this dollar sing for its supper? What portion of it needs to go into paid search? What portion in display/banners? Should I be playing in affiliate marketing programs? What is my goal? What is the success event I want that dollar to drive and how am I going to make every penny in that dollar prove its contribution to that goal?

Next: a quick reading list

Dour Marketer — what’s first? Get your ruler.

One has to start somewhere in getting one’s act together in a down economy, so I suggest the first thing to get in order is online metrics. You must measure the heck out of what you do. Hunches are for people who can afford to be sloppy.

If you are a dour marketer in a small or medium business, online metrics means Google Analytics because it is free. Deal with it, learn it, read the book, become a disciple of Avinash. Sure, when your moving $50 million in ad spend a year though an ecommerce engine generating $500 million in revenue, then you can worry yourself with industrial strength measurement systems like Omniture (which in full disclosure we use). But before you get all revved up to go do something because action is better than inaction, get yourself to Amazon and buy these two books:

  • Web Analytics: An Hour A Day, Avinash Kaushik. Avinash is the best analytics blogger out there. He works at Google. His blog, Occam’s Razor has been in my blogroll since, well, since it started.
  • Advanced Web Metrics With Google Analytics: Brian Clifton. I don’t know Brian, but I do known enough about Google Analytics to know it can be a very powerful tool in the right hands.

Good buddy and thrifty marketer Mark Cahill turned me onto Google Analytics and it runs in the background of this blog. I want to underscore – I am a retarded web analytics person; the true practitioners I know like Jim Hazen, Ranjit Kulkarni, Esteban Panzeri, are extremely insightful, well trained and inspired in their mastery of the tools and the strange world of first party cookies, EVARs, tags and conjoint analysis.

There are a ton of good metrics resources — if, as I suspect, you are a protean dour marketer and wearing several hats — or, at the very least, interested in learning all aspects of digital from SEM to SEO to WOM to SMM, then you won’t have the time to become a metrics ninja. But it is the first step on the road to enlightenment as everything needs to get “tagged” at some point.

Next post, I’ll expand the reading list to include more titles.

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